Princeville Resort readies for transformation

PRINCEVILLE — The Princeville Resort has seen a fair share of changes since it opened in 1985.

The hotel underwent a major renovation after changing ownership in 1990, and again two years later following the destruction of Hurricane ‘Iniki.

Throughout it all, the Princeville has maintained a reputation for luxury, priceless views and quality service.

This month, the resort will embark on perhaps its biggest transformation yet, joining the ranks of a mere 13 hotels worldwide under the St. Regis brand.

Parent company Starwood Hotels & Resorts owns 900 properties, but only a handful comprise the St. Regis elite, which Princeville’s new general manager, Milton Sgarbi, calls the “jewel of the crown.”

Sgarbi replaced former GM Kelly Hoen in July to oversee the renovation, which begins in earnest this month. The property earlier this year announced plans to close for the process, and best estimates project a re-opening mid-2009.

As for the timing, with Kaua‘i’s visitor industry seeing the biggest declines in arrivals in more than a decade, Sgarbi said it’s “perfect.” Economic forecasts project a turnaround in 2010, with the worst to be weathered this winter and the first part of 2009.

In addition, the weaker dollar against a stronger euro makes it more appealing to stay stateside for travel, and the domestic economy means that many Americans are considering destinations closer to home, Sgarbi said.

Getting the hotel up to par with St. Regis standards will entail upgrading the restaurants and retail spaces, the addition of tropical gardens, and revisiting all rooms, landscaping and pools.

Butler services will be added, and staffing will be reinforced in many departments, including the spa.

All staff, even those who don’t have direct contact with guests, will undergo brand cultural training; some management will spend time at other St. Regis hotels for a better understanding of the experience the brand provides.

Not every hotel can become a St. Regis, no matter the amount of money spent on upgrades, according to Sgarbi. Among the main criteria is address — St. Regis are found only in the best places, he said.

The Princeville has long been renowned for its views of Hanalei Bay, and Kaua‘i itself is a unique destination among the Hawaiian Islands.

“People will know when they come to Kaua‘i the St. Regis is the place to stay,” he said

Sgarbi, who has overseen renovations and openings in previous positions, said the process is always challenging. One lesson he’s learned: You can agonize over the color of chairs, but it’s less important than the comfort.

“Opening a hotel and after three renovations, you know where to spend your time — on issues that are critical to quality and critical to guests,” he said.

It’s that experience — along with his knowledge of the St. Regis brand in international locations — that brought Sgarbi to the Princeville to replace Hoen, who is now leading the Royal Hawaiian Hotel on O‘ahu in its multi-million-dollar renovation.

Sgarbi was born in Brazil, where he started his career in hotel management. He went on to work for The Ritz in Lisbon, Portugal, and then led Starwood’s Luxury Collection hotel in Sardinia, Italy. Most recently, he opened the Bora Bora St. Regis in French Polynesia.

On her successor, Hoen said Sgarbi’s strengths will see the property through a successful transformation.

Reflecting on her seven years in Princeville, Hoen said her greatest accomplishment was “being a key part of the community and providing a home for people.” The resort’s greatest strength is its staff, she added.

“It’s low turnover and loyalty that really create great synergy for return guests,” Hoen said.

Princeville spokeswoman Stephanie Kaluahine Reid, who has been with the hotel since its inception, said Sgarbi has shown an inclusive leadership style.

“He understands that we have been a family, an ‘ohana, for many years,” she said. “He’s taking us, as our leader, into the future (of the Princeville).”

• Blake Jones, business writer/assistant editor, can be reached at 245-3681 (ext. 251) or bjones@kauaipubco.com

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